Hercules (1997)

Honey, you mean Hunk-ules

Hercules has a bit of a reputation as a minor Disney Renaissance work, mostly because it has a light comic tone while still adhering to a fairy tale-esque hero’s journey story arc, perhaps lending it an air of excessive breeziness where dramatic punch is expected.

But I’ve always found Hercules to be immensely underrated and one of the more effective Disney pictures of the last half century.

Hercules does a lot of things right, starting with its character designs. Where other hand-drawn Disney films feel like storybooks come to life, or at least inspired by a classical illustration aesthetic, Hercules characters feel ripped from the Sunday funnies and brought to life. Nearly every character is a miracle of proportions and geometry, pleasing to watch and stare at.

Three of the film’s characters are phenomenal, and all of them feel like they were ripped from a screwball comedy: Danny DeVito as Phil, the trainer/agent of Hercules; Susan Egan as Meg the dame; and James Woods as Hades as the quick-tongued villain. When any of the three of them are on screen the movie shines, especially if one of them is bantering circles around the dull protagonist.

Indeed, the title character is a bit of a bore. Hercules is little more than a gold-hearted jock (leveled up from a teenaged gold-hearted klutz, which is at least a little more interesting). What was it with the Disney Renaissance and male protagonists? Hercules, Simba, and Aladdin are all among the least interesting things of their respective films. (It’s little surprise to me that the movie’s biggest emotional moment is not Hercules’s triumph, but Phil seeing one of his proteges in the stars. It chokes me up every time.)

Another of the movie’s strengths is its music, which isn’t as consistent as Menken-Ashman scores, but still dazzling at its peaks. The film adopts the “muses” as a Greek chorus, narrating Hercules’s arc with music inspired by gospel and ’60s Motown/R&B/girl-group. It’s an ingenious twist that gives the film tons of audio color to match its bright visual hues. There’s no question that the movie’s two most forgettable numbers are the two that ditch the gospel choir theme (the training montage song and the solid-but-unmemorable “I Want” song).

Hercules is also tremendously funny, one of Disney’s funniest ever. It doesn’t subvert itself quite into a joke vehicle like The Emperor’s New Groove, but it’s pretty close. Your mileage may vary depending on your appetite for anachronism jokes, but the script is one sharp quip after another.

Beyond the character designs, the film’s animation is generally quite good. I love, in particular, the look of Mt. Olympus: a fluffy cloud haven where every character is some ultra-saturated pastel.

On the other hand, the CGI Hydra battle is a pretty massive bore relative to everything else we’re looking at.

Lastly, there’s the matter of the grotesque bastardization of history and mythology that drives the movie. It doesn’t bother me, but it does give me minor pause: Ancient Greek and Roman culture are slurried together with abandon, and the story reads as if written by someone who maybe read the Hercules myth 30 years ago when they were 9. If brutalizing classic myths is a problem for you, abandon hope, but that’s not me.

Add it all up and you have a terrifically entertaining movie, fun and funny and brisk and energetic, and one I’m ready to defend to Mt. Olympus and back again.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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